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As wiretap claims rattle government, Greece bans spyware

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Lawmakers in Greece on Friday approved legislation banning commercial spyware and reforming rules for legally-sanctioned wiretaps following allegations that senior government officials and journalists had been targeted by shadowy surveillance software. The 156-142 vote in parliament followed two days of debate, during which opposition lawmakers accused the government of attempting to cover up the illegal surveillance. They demanded that the date of a general election — due before next summer — be brought forward. Under the new law, the use, sale or distribution of spyware in Greece will carry a penalty of a two-year minimum prison sentence. Additional safeguards were also planned for legal wiretaps as well as for hiring the director and deputy directors of the National Intelligence Service, or NIS. Critics, including human rights groups and an independent transparency authority, argue that the changes followed a poorly-planned consultation process and lack sufficient oversight. Opposition lawmakers all voted against the bill Friday.

In August, a top government aide and the country’s security chief resigned following revelations that Socialist politician Nikos Androulakis had been the subject of telephone surveillance by the NIS that the government insists had been legally sanctioned. Androulakis was later elected leader of Greece’s third largest party.

Reports followed in the news media that cell phones belonging to members of the cabinet as well as other senior officials and journalists may have been targeted with powerful Predator spyware.

The government insists its agencies have never used the spyware — a position that political opponents have repeatedly questioned.

“Was the NIS monitoring other politicians besides Mr. Androulakis? The heads of the armed forces? members of the European Parliament, yes or no?” opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, who heads the left-wing Syriza party, said in parliament. “I hope the answer is ’no′ and I expect to hear it clearly. But if it turns out that you are lying, you will be duty-bound to resign.”

The government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ center-right New Democracy party, has seen its strong lead in opinions polls in recent weeks suffer as a result of the wiretapping allegations and the ongoing cost of living crisis.

A prosecutor from Greece’s Supreme Court is heading an investigation into the surveillance allegations, while the use – alleged or otherwise – of spyware in Greece and several other European Union members is also the subject of a European Parliament inquiry.